Religion

Loving Dangerously

We were down at the dog park the other day, and Molly, as is her habit, made the rounds of all the people there. She gets attention by throwing her head back and calling out an insistent “Woo-Woo!” People turn toward her and want to pet the pretty, fluffy dog. You can tell when she smells treats on a new person, because she immediately goes into a very proper “Sit” and looks them intently in the eye. Other people get the walk-through treatment: she tries to walk between their legs, hoping to get her back scratched. There are some people Molly finds especially likeable. Those people get “The Paws of Love,” as Molly sits back on her haunches and puts both front paws up in her version of an embrace.

The water has been turned off for the winter at the Valley Street Dog Park, and dog owners are bringing water down in gallon jugs to share. As Molly and Sam were getting a drink from the common bowls, a couple of banged-up old pots, I began thinking about the Canine Flu. Dog owners are already arguing about the best response to this flu that has already been found in large kennels and at racetracks. Should dog shows be avoided? And what about dog parks?

Suppose Molly had to spend the winter at home, with no new people to meet and greet, only the family to embrace with “The Paws of Love?” The beauty of those paws is how indiscriminately they are offered: to old friends and perfect strangers, to men or to women, without regard to age, race or fashion sense. It’s sad to think of Molly tucked away safely, because going down to the dog park would mean loving dangerously.

You can hardly turn on the television or pick up the newspaper without hearing about the possibility of an avian flu pandemic. A swan in Eastern Europe, a parrot in Great Britain, children in southeast Asia—each day there are new stories about the potential for spreading this potentially deadly flu around the world. What would we do if faced with a flu pandemic? Perhaps we would be placed under quarantine. Sales of surgical masks and rubber gloves would soar.

Dr. Grattan Woodson, author of a booklet called Preparing for the Coming Influenza Pandemic, tells us to expect not to be able to go to the store or to work, to visualize hospitals so full of patients and short of staff that you wouldn’t want to be in one anyway. He makes a list of the things any family would need to cope with serious illness when professional medical care isn’t readily accessible and gives instructions about keeping the ill person hydrated, the most important thing of all for a flu patient. Most importantly, he tells the caregiver, “Caring for severely ill flu patients is something that everyone is capable of doing. You can do this. No medical skill is required. . .they need to be comforted and told that they are going to be OK and reassured that you will be there for them.”

The most important thing we could give is care. Our most important act would be to love.

All the great religions put an emphasis on care for those who need it most. Devotion to God and care for others form the foundation for a life of faith. They provide a rule for living, and living them provides ongoing revelation. We learn more about how to love God and love one another simply by doing those very things.

In an epidemic, basic care for the sick is an urgent need. Do we feel that urgency when it comes to loving our neighbors on the average day?

Molly does! I often wonder what made her that way. She is naturally winsome and charming and affectionate, so in part it’s her nature. As a puppy, she came to live with me, and I like to go places and always stop to speak to people; her environment reinforced her natural tendencies. Most of all, greeting people with love and enthusiasm is her rule for life; it is her practice. It is both who she is and what she does.

Can we be like that? It means throwing caution and prejudice to the winds. It means living and loving dangerously, knowing that we may not be loved in return by other people. To do it, we need to peel off the gloves and throw away the masks that keep us “safe” and separate from other people. We need to admit to being God’s people when we aren’t tucked safely away with people who would say the same. We need to be ready to infect and be infected in a pandemic of love. Such an epidemic would change the world.

“The Paws of Love” would be universal, and our healing would be assured.

Updated to add: This is a selection from this morning’s sermon and also a draft of my next reflection column for the local paper. Feedback appreciated.

16 thoughts on “Loving Dangerously”

  1. I like it a lot.
    Particularly the canine flu bit reminded me of a woman in a previous congregation. Do you know dry, pinched women? She was one. She hate communion by intinction (rip and dip) and would go on and on about how unsanitary it was. Actually what she said was, “dizz-GUST-ing.” She did not have a weakened immune system, nor did anyone else in the congregation that she was aware of. She just hated those germs from other people, floating around in *her* sacrament.
    It does bother me a little when people take teeny-tiny pieces of bread, virtually assuring that their fingers will end up in the cup. But it bothers me more for a theological reason–God’s grace is abundant in the sacrament, and some tiny little crumb of bread doesn’t quite bear the weight of that.
    However, the day the dour among us win prevail and we start taking our communion in individual snack-packs for the sake of cleanliness is going to be a sad day indeed.

  2. I used the snack-pack communion as a sermon illustration once: “The Body of Christ,Hermetically Sealed For You”.
    And I have tiny-crumb-pinching-which-necessitates-finger-dunking folks in my congregation as well. I thought it was just me.
    Songbird–home run as usual!

  3. Beautiful, as always. I wish you could have teleported to Montgomery AL this weekend to hear Dr. James Forbes talk about the need for transformation of the spirit and Dr. Charles Marsh talk about the gift of unconditional love. It was water and fertilizer for my soul.

  4. I share the feelings about ripping off the teeniest little piece of bread. In September I gently suggested to someone that she tear off a bigger piece: “Oh, take another one. There’s plenty for everybody.” And there always, always is. Gosh, that was informal of me, wasn’t it? So low UCC…

  5. great post — this will make a terrific article also. thanks!
    i think every church has a few designated pinched women. they make me a bit sad, these keepers of the ark of the good dishes. but then, sometimes they also just annoy me…

  6. I do the same thing, Songbird. (I am expecting my Stern Talking-To by the Ministry of Decency and Order any day now.)
    I also love when they end up with a bigger piece than they anticipated–then they break off a smaller piece from *that* and leave it on the plate. I want to be their southern grandmother in those situations–“just take the whole piece of cake, honey. Don’t you deserve it?”
    People are so gosh-darn considerate–worried we’ll run out. As far as I’m concerned, it is not the congregation’s job to make sure there’s enough for everyone anyway. It’s the worship elders’ job. And you’re right–there always is.

  7. Of all the acres of material I’ve read on bird flu, this is the only thing that takes as its lesson the gorgeous precariousness of love. How I admire your writing and your thinking, Songbird.
    My dad used to make a game of taking the teeniest, tiniest piece of challah for the Shabbat blessing. Sigh.

  8. Oh, Phantom. Challah is for tearing in big, random, delicious hunks! But you know that.
    In the sermon I quoted from that booklet by Dr. Grattan Woodson. It’s an odd combination of terrifying and reassuring. “Dreadful things will happen, but you, gentle reader, can handle them.” Funny.
    ppb, the paws of love would love you, too.

  9. late in here
    but this is seriously good and challenging message
    I lovedthe description of Molly – because we have a dog too – and then the fear crept in and the solution – to put our faith in God and love without borders.
    yeah – would you come and preach this in our church please? 🙂

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